CLEARWATER – Improving higher education and fighting homelessness are two of State Rep. Kathleen Peters’ favorite causes.
But on a recent visit to the Art Institute of Tampa, a branch of Miami International University of Art and Design, the Pinellas County Republican (of South Pasadena) had a brainstorm: Why not combine the two causes?
“Do you do pro bono work for social causes?” she asked the school’s president.
“Of course we do,” he replied.
That was the genesis of a plan to have a hand-picked group of outstanding AIT students design an advertising program, similar to the 1998 anti-tobacco campaign that has had some success in curtailing smoking, to dispel the myths about homelessness.
“We are going to start protecting our most vulnerable citizens,” Peters vowed.
On July 8, a press conference was held at the county’s Safe Harbor homeless shelter, near the St. Petersburg/Clearwater International Airport, to announce the formation of a partnership between AIT and the Homeless Leadership Board of Pinellas County to “change the public’s perception of the homeless population.” A standing-room-only crowd of county and municipal officials, AIT students and faculty, and representatives of the local print and broadcast media attended it.
“Homelessness is a huge problem in Pinellas County and the State of Florida,” Carlen Peterson, a former Clearwater City Councilwoman who now chairs the Homeless Leadership Board, told the crowd.
“It doesn’t look like what you see on the street corner or the park bench,” Rep. Peters added. “It’s so much more.”
Peters added that for every wino passed out on a park bench, there might be several children or young families sleeping in cars or “couch surfing” at the homes of friends.
Without the help they need, many of those people wind up in the criminal justice system and become the taxpayers’ problem. Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said that doing everything possible to keep them out of the criminal justice system should be a no-brainer because it only costs $13 a day to keep a homeless person at the Safe Harbor shelter, but it would cost $105 a day to keep that same person in the nearby county jail.
“The criminal justice system should not be used as a dumping ground for a social problem,” Gualtieri said.
“We need to address the problem of the criminalization of homelessness,” Pinellas County Public Defender Bob Dillinger agreed. “It doesn’t work; it only creates more problems.”
Slowly, several speakers said, people are realizing that homelessness is not just a law enforcement problem or a social services problem; it’s everybody’s problem. Bob Clifford, president of the Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce, said that the business community is discovering that it, too, must be part of the solution.
“We believe the students at the Art Institute of Tampa will be creative in their messaging and the Chamber can gather the business community to support and generate resources to execute their plan,” Clifford wrote in a letter to members and friends of the chamber.
“We don’t want to put parameters on the students at this time,” Rep. Peters said when asked how the AIT team would approach the project. She said that the students would interview several homeless people, and devise a plan that they will unveil four to six months from now.
After that, she said, the project might go statewide. But she cautioned that this project, or any project, alone will not eliminate homelessness.
“It’s truly going to take a village to do this,’ she said. “It will take all of us.”